NEXT TO NORMAL presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati through Sept. 25. You can read the show description here.
Director D. Lynn Meyers and the staff at ETC set the bar extremely high with the first production of their second quarter century. At this rate, my list of favorite shows for the 2011-2012 season is going to be a long one. And that is wonderful news for local theater audiences.
Upon entering the theater you are greeted by Brian c. Mehring’s massive multi-level set. Dominated by black and metal, with white floating staircases and framed by florescent bars, it felt as if one could fall into the set and end up somewhere else, a “gateway to another dimension” that serves the show well. Also ever present on the set are prescription bottles, a constant reminder of their impact on the entire family.
Vocal powerhouse Jessica Hendy leads the strong ensemble as mother Diana, whose struggles with mental illness drives the plot. She shows great range with the character and I enjoyed the moments of humor she found, in the script, to comment on and cope with her condition.
Mike Schwitter is also vocally stunning as son Gabe. His performance of “I’m Alive” has so much energy and emotion that it demands your full attention and pulls you into the moment. Schwitter also has an easy chemistry with Hendy, making their replationship, (correctly) the strongest relationship on stage.
Mark Hardy portrays Dan, the father and faithful husband trying desperately to be the rock for his family. Hardy does a great job of showing the isolation of his position, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the facade drop and the physical toll show a bit more when Dan is alone. Vocally, Hardy nails “A Light in the Dark” at the end of the first act, but does seem to struggle, at times, with the contemporary sound of the score.
Mia Gentile portrays overlooked, overachiever daughter Natalie. Her performance of “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” is extremely well-done and in that one song gives the audience true insight into the life of her character. Having to deal with her mother’s illness her entire life and having to be more self-reliant than an average 17 year-old would give Natalie a sense of maturity beyond her years.
However, I found Natalie to seem about four years too old, more college than high school. Part of that is due to the styling and costume choices. Scenes with Henry offer the opportunity for Natalie to act like a teenager, which I think is part of his appeal to her. It would also make Natalie’s decision, to take a more active role in helping her mother, be a stronger turning point for her character.
Natalie’s new boyfriend, Henry is portrayed by Nick Cearley. He works hard to bring the correct age, energy and attitude to his lovable 17 year-old slacker. Cearley also supplies strong vocals throughout the show. Henry and Natalie have good chemistry and are obviously doing something right as I found myself rooting for them as a couple.
Charlie Clark rounds out the ensemble as Doctor Madden and Doctor Fine. Clark continues to impress me with his singing, this time with the vocal gymnastics in “Doctor Rock.” His acting performance is solid, although I wouldn’t mind a bit more character variance between the two doctors that reads better from a distance.
Excellent work again by music director Scot Woolley. I was a little concerned to see the four-person band evenly split on opposing sides of the set, but it had no impact on the quality of their work. I did find the drums a bit too loud, briefly, a couple of times near the end of the first act. This may have been more of a sound issue. Either way it was quickly corrected.
Perhaps one of the most touching moments of the show was the choreography during “I Dreamed a Dance.” Patti James’ work beautifully compliments and strengthens the emotional impact of the scene.
Bottom line, as a fan of musical theater, it has been too long since I’ve seen a non-comedy production this satisfying. Bring tissues.
Ticket sales for this production have been EXTREMELY strong. If you wish to attend this production, order your tickets now as the production cannot be extended.
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